A Short History of Gumbo
A SHORT HISTORY OF GUMBO
by Stanley Dry
Of all the dishes in the realm of Louisiana cooking, gumbo is the most famous and, very likely, the most popular. Gumbo crosses all class barriers, appearing on the tables of the poor as well as the wealthy. Although ingredients might vary greatly from one cook to the next, and from one part of the state to another, a steaming bowl of fragrant gumbo is one of life’s cherished pleasures, as emblematic of Louisiana as chili is of Texas.
Gumbo is often cited as an example of the melting-pot nature of Louisiana cooking, but trying to sort out the origins and evolution of the dish is highly speculative. The name derives from a West African word for okra, suggesting that gumbo was originally made with okra. The use of filé (dried and ground sassafras leaves) was a contribution of the Choctaws and, possibly, other local tribes. Roux has its origin in French cuisine, although the roux used in gumbos is much darker than its Gallic cousins.
Dr. Carl A. Brasseaux, of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, who has written the definitive history of the Cajuns, found that the first documented references to gumbo appeared around the turn of the 19th century. In 1803, gumbo was served at a gubernatorial reception in New Orleans, and in 1804 gumbo was served at aCajun gathering on the Acadian Coast.
Today, the gumbos people are most familiar with are seafood gumbo and chicken and sausage gumbo. But that merely scratches the surface of gumbo cookery, both historical and contemporary.
Lafcadio Hearn’s La Cuisine Creole, published in 1885, contains recipes for several gumbos made from a variety of ingredients—chicken, ham, bacon, oysters, crab, shrimp, and beef, among them. Some of the recipes are made with okra, others with filé. Although there is no mention of a roux in any of the recipes, some of them call for the addition of flour or browned flour as a thickener.
The Creole Cookery Book, published by the Christian Woman’s Exchange of New Orleans in 1885, calls gumbo making an “occult science” that “should be allowed its proper place in the gastronomical world.” A New Orleans gumbo, the book maintains, “can be made of scraps of cold meat or fowl, a few oysters, crabs or shrimps, and, with a couple of spoonfuls of well cooked rice, is a very satisfying and economical dinner.” The editors include several recipes for gumbo, one of which incorporates filé (spelled “fillet” in the book). Some of the recipes are made with various greens and herbs, but, curiously, there is no mention of okra as a gumbo ingredient, although the book includes three recipes for okra soup.
The Picayune’s Creole Cookbook, published in New Orleans in 1901, includes recipes for a variety of gumbos. Among the principal ingredients are chicken, ham, oysters, turkey, wild turkey, squirrel, rabbit, beef, veal, crabs, soft-shell crabs, shrimp, greens, and cabbage. Some of the gumbos are made with okra, others with filé.
Traditionally, gumbos have been divided into two large categories—those thickened with okra and those thickened with filé. According to some accounts, before the advent of refrigeration and freezers, okra was the preferred thickening agent for gumbo, while filé was a substitute used only in the off-season when okra wasn’t available. That sounds plausible, but I’ve also come across references to dried okra as an ingredient in 19th-century gumbos. By drying okra, cooks could use it in their gumbos year round.
In some respects, putting gumbo into either an okra or a filé category is still valid, but for many cooks, a brown roux is the only thickener, and filé has virtually disappeared from their recipes. Often roux-based gumbos do incorporate filé, and to my taste they are the better for it. Filé is used both for thickening and for flavor. It is usually added to a gumbo just before serving, or at the table. Many okra gumbos also incorporate a brown roux and some roux-based gumbo contain a small amount of okra, often cooked until it virtually dissolves.
If all those variations aren’t confusing enough, there are also raging controversies over what constitutes a proper gumbo roux. Roux, of course, is flour that has been browned in oil or some other fat. Both cooks and eaters have their own opinions on how dark the roux should be and how much should be used in a gumbo. There is no agreement on these matters, as anyone who has tasted gumbos from different cooks can attest.
A good place to sample an astonishingly wide range of gumbos is the World Championship Gumbo Cookoff that is held each October in New Iberia. A few years ago, I interviewed contestants about their gumbo philosophies. As for the preferred color of the roux, answers varied from the color of a brown paper bag to the color of dark chocolate. So, too, for the desired thickness of the gumbo. A local banker aimed for a thin gumbo (“gumbo juice,” he called it), while another cook’s ideal thickness was somewhere between rice and gravy and a stew.
Although the New Iberia event requires that contestants cook their own roux on site, the rest of us are not so constrained. For some years, commercially prepared rouxs have been available, and they are a great convenience item. Dry rouxs consisting of only browned flour are also commonplace on grocery shelves and are popular with those who wish to reduce their consumption of fat. When using either, I’ve found that it’s preferable to dissolve them in hot liquid before adding to the gumbo pot.
Contemporary gumbos are made with all manner of ingredients in a variety of combinations. Seafood and non-seafood gumbos are two primary types, and they may be made with or without okra. But some gumbos include ingredients from both the land and the sea. Duck, smoked sausage, and oyster gumbo is one delicious example. Some cooks add hard-boiled eggs to chicken and sausage gumbos, and quail eggs find their way into other versions. A very atypical version is the Lenten gumbo z’herbes, which is made with a variety of greens.
Seafood gumbos often include crabs, shrimp, and oysters. Shrimp and okra gumbo is a perennial favorite, as is chicken and okra gumbo. Chicken and sausage gumbo is extremely popular, and in the households of hunters, ducks and other game birds often wind up in the gumbo pot. Turkey and sausage gumbos appear frequently during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. An unusual but delicious combination is a gumbo of steak, smoked sausage, and oysters. Some cooks use ham or tasso in their gumbos, and others use fresh sausage in place of the smoked variety. The possible combinations are virtually endless.
One ingredient that does arouse controversy is the tomato. Some cooks use it in their gumbos, others wouldn’t be caught dead putting tomato in theirs. In that respect, the situation is analogous to jambalaya, where the question of the appropriateness of tomato is a burning issue. Tomatoes are most often found in okra gumbos, but I’ve had roux-based seafood gumbo that also contained tomato. I don’t have any hard evidence to back this up, but in my experience gumbos containing tomato are more common on the eastern side of Bayou Lafourche than they are farther west. Personally, I am for tomato in okra gumbo and against it in non-okra gumbo.
One point everyone can agree on is that gumbo is always served with rice. But that was not always the case. C.C. Robin, a Frenchman who published an account of his travels in Louisiana in 1803-1805, reported that gumbo was served with corn meal mush.
A contemporary variant on that theme is the experience of Dr. Monty Rizzo, a New Iberia physician and an excellent cook who hunts game in Africa. On a safari in Tanzania, he taught the cooks to make a gumbo with the doves his party had shot that day. The cooks had already proved their soup-making skills with a cream of peanut soup and a Cape buffalo tail soup, but gumbo was unknown to them. There was no rice in the camp, so the cooks served the gumbo with corn meal mush. It was such a hit that before the trip was over, they made it again, this time without Dr. Rizzo’s supervision.
For some reason, gumbo is one of those dishes that men often make. It has some of the same appeal as game cookery or barbecuing, and it is a favorite dish at hunting camps. When men who cook only occasionally make a gumbo the event takes on a heightened significance. Some men use the phrase “build a gumbo” to describe what they are doing, and the occasion demands a good supply of iced beer. If there is an audience, so much the better. On the other hand, for women and men who cook on a daily basis, making a gumbo is more routine, if no less important.
I’m convinced that part of gumbo’s virtue, aside from its deliciousness, is that the dish is very forgiving of the cook. Measurements do not have to be exact, ingredients may be changed to use what is on hand, and unless the diners are so set in their ways that they can’t appreciate change, the result will be quite good.
Consider the options as set forth in a gumbo recipe that appeared in the New Orleans City Guide, which was published in 1938. It is a fairly basic recipe for a gumbo made with crabs, shrimp, and oysters. At the end of the instructions is this advice:
“Okra may be used in place of the filé, but it is cooked with the gumbo. The basic recipe is the same, but chicken, veal, and ham or a combination of veal and a hambone can be substituted for the crabs and shrimp. After Thanksgiving and Christmas the left-over turkey may be made into a gumbo with oysters.”
Stanley Dry is a writer, SFA member, and gumbo lover. You can see more of his work here.